Chicago's Blackstone Hotel
Redo Removing Grime from Inn
Famous for 'Smoke-Filled Room'
Off to the side of an otherwise gutted and cavernous ninth
floor of the historic Blackstone Hotel on South Michigan Avenue
is a solitary hotel suite, its hardwood trim, fireplace and
This is the famous "smoke-filled room," the one
where numerous presidents and politicians supposedly plotted
and schemed back in the heyday of the Blackstone. The room's
political cliché label was applied when Warren G. Harding
was picked as the compromise Republican presidential candidate
for the 1920 elections.
The preserved suite illustrates the work that has been taking
place on the Blackstone since May and will finish up late
this year. It's a $112 million job in which developers at
some points are gutting the South Michigan Avenue structure
and at other places gingerly chipping around its historic
"The challenge here was to keep the hotel's history but
bring the building into the 21st Century," says Brian
Hardy, project manager of Chicago-based James McHugh Construction
Co., the general contractor.
The nearly century-old 22-story Blackstone is being converted
back into a world-class hotel-on a tight 18-month schedule-after
sitting dormant for about eight years. When it reopens as
part of the Marriott Renaissance chain, it will offer 330
guest rooms, a restored ballroom and lobby, conference and
boardrooms, a Michigan Avenue bar and a second-floor restaurant
with views of Grant Park.
"It will once again be a diamond," Hardy says.
The property was purchased in 2005 by Denver-based Sage Hospitality
Resources, known for rehabbing historic hotels, and reports
two years ago say it was listed for $31 million. Chicago's
Lucien LaGrange Architects is the designer for the project,
and the engineering firm handling the exterior renovation
is Chicago-based Wiss, Janney Elstner & Associates.
Refashioning the hotel into modern destination place has presented
some problems, says Jared Hoeflich, Sage's project manager
for the Blackstone.
For example, a landmark designation by the Commission on Chicago
Landmarks that came in 1998 has meant that numerous aspects
of the hotel had to be preserved-ranging from its facade to
large sections of its interior.
"We want to be respectful of the space and of the history
and the design of the period, but we also want to provide
what the market demands," Hoeflich says.
Hence the preservation of the famous smoke-filled room on
the ninth floor, which will now be know as the Vice Presidential
There is also a preserved Presidential Suite on the floor
above in which 12 U.S. presidents (from Theodore Roosevelt
to Franklin D. Roosevelt to Jimmy Carter) stayed. It will
be restored and updated.
One of the biggest jobs of the project has been restoring
and shoring up the hotel's terra cotta exterior. So that work
can progress through the winter months, the building was clad
in a blue plastic sheath so that temperatures could be controlled,
Hardy says. "That will also us to do the terra cotta
work throughout the entire winter," he says.
From the 17th floor up, there was a vast amount of terra cotta
work to do, Hardy says. "There was also deterioration
of the steel behind it, and there was a lot of strapping to
hold it all together," he adds. "We were pulling
a lot a brick and terra cotta down, repairing the steel, cleaning
the terra cotta and with new pieces, putting it all back on."
Hoeflich says the $9 million exterior job is not typical,
"but we were extremely pleased we were able to do the
restoration work quickly considering the complexity of the
The hotel's mansard roof is also being rebuilt with much work
to the substrate below, and new, double-hung fixed windows
are being installed on the exterior.
The interior renovation's focus has been on the first few
floors and basement-known as the public areas-which will be
meticulously restored to their original charm.
In the main lobby, McHugh will restore the grand fireplace,
mahogany accents and plaster detailing. The Crystal Ballroom,
the Art Hall, the English Room and the lower-level barbershop
will also be brought back to their former state of grandeur.
There was also a good amount of cannibalizing existing materials
to patch and replace, Hardy says. For example, in the hotel's
woody English Room-which will now serve as a boardroom-wooden
pocket door panels were used to patch wooden wall paneling
that had been damaged or removed over the years, he adds.
To ensure they were on track with the restoration efforts,
McHugh engineers used a number of sources-from the original
1909 blueprints for the hotel to advice from the Blackstone's
McHugh engineers also wrestled in the interior of the building
with the installation of mechanical systems. To install needed
ceiling sprinkler systems, workers had to drill down through
On the sixth floor, the developers will get around massive
trusses that hold up the ceiling of the fifth-floor ballroom
by building a workout room around them.
"It will be a workout room with a great view of Grant
Park," Hardy says.
New stairs are being added in the building's northwest corner.
The sixth through 23rd floors will feature completely new
Former "back of house" space located under the porthole-accented
double-high mansard roof will be used for sweeping luxury
suites with lakefront views as well as a concierge service
Developers also faced a logistical challenge with the location
of the Blackstone at the corner of Michigan Avenue and Balbo
Street. For example, demolition was slated as a six-month
project, and McHugh wrestled with the amount of debris that
had to be removed from the Blackstone.
"We had to close down the alley between Michigan and
Wabash and we went to the neighbors first," Hardy says.
"We wanted them to be OK with it."
The resurrection of the Blackstone as a luxury hotel is only
fitting, its developers say. When the hotel (which was named
after Timothy Blackstone, the inaugural president of the Union
Stock yards) was built in the early 20th Century, it joined
a growing league of luxury hotels in Chicago that included
the Palmer House and Hilton Towers. The hotel also has been
used in such movies as "The Untouchables," "The
Babe" and "The Color of Money."
Even though the Commission on Chicago Landmarks gave the Blackstone
the designation of landmark status in 1998, it was closed
a year later after city inspectors issued numerous building
violations to the hotel's owners.
The hotel sat dormant for a year or so until the building
was targeted for a condo conversion project of ex-Beatles
spiritual adviser Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. The Ohio-based Heaven
on Earth Inns Corp. planned to turn the Blackstone into a
"peace palace." The top end prices, however, scared
prospective owners away and the Blackstone languished in the
dark for several more years while its exterior began to crumble.
"To see this building slowly come back to life is rewarding,"
"This is one of the most history-rich hotel properties
in the U.S."
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